By ANDREW MELDRUM
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his armed forces to observe a unilateral 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine this weekend for the Orthodox Christmas holiday, the first such sweeping truce move in the nearly 11-month-old war. Kyiv indicated it wouldn’t follow suit.
Putin did not appear to condition his cease-fire order on Ukraine’s acceptance, and it wasn’t clear whether hostilities would actually pause on the 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) front line or elsewhere. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed the Russian move as playing for time to regroup its invasion forces and prepare additional attacks.
At various points during the war that began Feb. 24, Russian authorities have ordered limited, local truces to allow civilian evacuations or other humanitarian purposes. Thursday’s order was the first time Putin has directed his troops to observe a cease-fire throughout Ukraine.
“Based on the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the combat areas, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a cease-fire and give them the opportunity to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on the Day of the Nativity of Christ,” Putin’s order said.
The order didn’t specify whether it would apply to both offensive and defensive operations. It wasn’t clear, for example, whether Russia would strike back if Ukraine kept fighting.
Ukrainian officials from Zelenskky on down dismissed Putin’s moves.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskyy stopped short of stating his forces would reject Putin’s request to suspend fighting, instead questioning the Russian leadership’s motives.
“Now they want to use Christmas as a cover to stop the advance of our guys in the Donbas for a while and bring equipment, ammunition and mobilized people closer to our positions,” Zelenskyy said. “What will it give? Just another increase in the count of losses.”
Zelenskyy claimed that since he unveiled a peace plan in November, almost 110,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and he accused the Kremlin of planning the fighting pause “to continue the war with renewed vigor.”
The most comprehensive recent Western estimate of Russia’s military losses was from a senior U.S. military official, who said in November that about 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded. Russian authorities haven’t provided any recent figure for their military casualties.
Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that Russian forces “must leave the occupied territories — only then will it have a ‘temporary truce.’”
Ukraine’s National Security Council chief Oleksiy Danilov told Ukrainian TV: “We will not negotiate any truces with them.”
He also tweeted: “What does a bunch of little Kremlin devils have to do with the Christian holiday of Christmas? Who will believe an abomination that kills children, fires at maternity homes and tortures prisoners? A cease-fire? Lies and hypocrisy. We will bite you in the singing silence of the Ukrainian night.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said it was “interesting” that Putin was ready to bomb hospitals, nurseries and churches on Christmas and New Year’s. “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen,” he said, without elaborating.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington had “little faith in the intentions behind this announcement,” adding that Kremlin officials ”have given us no reason to take anything that they offer at face value.” He said the truce order seems to be a ploy “to rest, refit, regroup, and ultimately re-attack.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric welcomed the move but said it “will not replace a just peace in line with the U.N. Charter and International law.”
Putin acted after the Russian Orthodox Church head, Patriarch Kirill, proposed a truce from noon Friday through midnight Saturday Moscow time (0900 GMT Friday to 2100 GMT Saturday; 4 a.m. EST Friday to 3 p.m. EST Saturday). The Orthodox Church, which uses the Julian calendar, celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7.
Kirill has previously called the war part of Russia’s “metaphysical struggle” to prevent a Western liberal ideological encroachment.
Zelenskyy had proposed starting a path toward peace with a Russian troop withdrawal before Dec. 25, but Moscow rejected it.
Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said the cease-fire order “fits well into Putin’s logic, in which Russia is acting on the right side of history and fighting for justice.”
“In this war, Putin feels like a ‘good guy,’ doing good not only for himself and the ‘brotherly nations,’ but also for the world he’s freeing from the ‘hegemony’ of the United States,” Stanovaya, founder of the independent R.Politik think tank, wrote on Telegram.
She also linked Putin’s move to Ukrainian forces’ recent strike on Makiivka that killed at least 89 Russian servicemen. “He really doesn’t want to get something like that for Christmas,” she said.
Ukrainians reacted with suspicion.
“On the 8th of March (Women’s Day), (Ukraine’s) independence day, Christmas (Dec. 25) and the New Year, there were no cease-fires. Why should there be one now?” said Sophiia Romanovska, a 21-year-old student who fled Mariupol for Kyiv, peppering her comments with expletives.
Putin issued the truce order after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged him in a phone call to implement a “unilateral cease-fire,” according to the Turkish president’s office. The Kremlin said Putin “reaffirmed Russia’s openness to a serious dialogue” with Ukrainian authorities.
Erdogan told Zelenskyy later that Turkey was ready to mediate a “lasting peace.” Erdogan has made such offers frequently, helped broker a deal allowing Ukraine to export grain, and has facilitated prisoner swaps.
Russia’s professed readiness for peace talks came with the usual conditions: that “Kyiv authorities fulfill the well-known and repeatedly stated demands and recognize new territorial realities,” the Kremlin said, referring to Moscow’s insistence that Ukraine recognize Crimea and other illegally seized territory as part of Russia.
Previous attempts at peace talks have failed over Moscow’s territorial demands because Ukraine insists Russia withdraw from occupied areas.
Coupled with talk of diplomacy were new pledges Thursday of military support for Ukraine. Zelenskyy called the pledges “really a great victory for our state.”
Germany said it would match a U.S. announcement last month to supply Ukraine with a Patriot missile battery, the most advanced surface-to-air missile system the West has provided to Kyiv.
Germany also said it would supply Marder armored personnel carriers, and France said it will discuss with Ukraine delivery of armored combat vehicles that can destroy tanks.
U.S. officials said they will send Ukraine nearly $3 billion in military aid in a new package that will for the first time include several dozen Bradley fighting vehicles. The aim is to get as much aid to Ukrainian forces as possible before spring begins and fighting increases. An announcement was expected Friday, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the package’s details had not been announced.
The Kremlin contends the West’s supply of weapons to Ukraine is prolonging the conflict.
While more weapons arrive, the battlefield situation appears to have settled into a stalemate and war of attrition. As winter sets in, troop and equipment mobility is more limited.
In the latest fighting, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, said Thursday that Russian shelling killed at least five civilians and wounded eight in the previous 24 hours.
An intense battle has left 60% of the eastern city of Bakhmut in ruins, Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. Ukrainian defenders appear to be holding the Russians back. Taking the city in the Donbas region, an expansive industrial area bordering Russia, would not only give Putin a major battlefield gain after months of setbacks but rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow Moscow’s forces to press toward key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
In what appeared to be a move to entice more men to join the fight, the first convicts recruited for battle by the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, received a promised government pardon after serving six months on the front line. A video released by Russia’ state RIA Novosti news agency showed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s millionaire owner, shaking hands with about 20 pardoned men.
Associated Press journalists Bela Szandelszky in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee in Washington, and Andrew Katell in New York contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine